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PDC 98 - Participatory Design History

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Participatory Design History

Collective Resource Approach | Sociotechnical Systems Design | R/UDATs
Participatory Action Research | Joint Application Development | Participatory Ergonomics

Practices in participatory design have emerged in different professions, places, and areas of technological development. This page will provide some introductory historical background on a number of these sources for participatory design expertise.

We are interested in collecting additional historical summaries from omitted areas as well as mulitple perspective viewpoints on the participatory design histories presented.

Please email submissions and suggestions for areas warranting historical summaries to David Levinger.

The Participatory Design Conference has its roots in Scandinavian initiatives in computer systems development. Most notably, the "collective resources" approach developed in Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

Collective Resource Approach

The Collective Resource Approach to systems development recognizes the importance of perspective, interests, conflict, and participation among multiple expertise standpoints in the design process. Technology is not neutral, it benefits people disproportionately. Adverse consequences are usually ignored when those who would be affected are not included in the process. The roots of the Collective Resources Approach are generally associated with the efforts of Kristen Nygaard and Olav Terje Bergo in early 1970s Norway. When certain social objectives are sought in design, the Collective Resources Approach aims to pool the various forms of specialized and situated expertise to increase the collective understanding of a given situation.
This approach was influenced by three major developments in post-war Norway: the industrial democracy movement; Sociotechnical Systems Design; and the creation of the SIMULA computer programming language. The industrial democracy movement advocated and established the right for worker representation on corporate boards of directors. These and some of the other important gains were possible because of the high level of membership in labor unions (over 80 percent). In the 1960s, British and Australian researchers with a Sociotechnical Systems Desgin approach collaborated with Einar Thorsrud in Norwegian experiements with self-governing work groups and pyschological job requirements. Finally, an Operations Research trajectory into Informatics led to the invention of the computer language SIMULA (1965), significant to business process control and object-oriented programming.
The Collective Resources Approach became a significant influence in Scandinavian projects involving labor unions and end-users in the design of computer systems. Major projects associated with this approach include: the Iron and Metal Worker's Project, DEMOS (Swedent), DUE (Denmark), UTOPIA, and UNITE. These projects have been reported on at PDC conferences. Another outcome was the national data agreement in 1975 that gave workers the rights to elect specialized shop stewards to deal with information systems and the right to review new technology before its implementation.

--David Levinger

A more detailed account of the early activities in this tradition can be found in Bjerknes, Gro and Tone Bratteteig (1995). "User Participation and Democracy. A Discussion of Scandinavian Research on System Development". Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems. Vol. 7, No. 1. pp. 73-98. A portion of this paper is quoted from here:

2. The Scandinavian trade union projects

Historically the starting point for user participation in system development was the discussion about the relationship between work and democratic values in Scandinavia around 1960 [Gustavsen, 86]. At that time, it was generally agreed that industry should level the general democratic principles in society, and that opportunities for increased individual engagement should be created as a means to increase productivity and efficiency [Thorsrud et al, 64; Thorsrud and Emery, 70]. A large action programme for improving the working life in Scandinavia was designed and conducted as an industrial democracy programme by The Norwegian Federation of Trade Unions (LO) in cooperation with The Norwegian Employers' Federation (NAF). NAF was interested in rationalisation and improved organisational development; LO wanted to empower the workers. One of the results of the Cooperation Projects was a revised Worker Protection and Working Environment Act [AML, 77; Sørensen, 92]. AML's section 12 states that workers and their representatives shall be kept informed about systems used for planning and performing work, and about planned changes in such systems. Sufficient education for using the systems, and participation in the design process is emphasised. The main idea is that the workers themselves shall control and be responsible for performing work.
Within this cooperative climate, some more explicitly stated political projects were carried out to support and strengthen the trade unions. Stronger trade unions were supposed to contribute to democracy by giving workers a voice and an opportunity to influence their work situation. The trade unions were part of the existing power structures in society established to empower the workers.
The first political project was initiated by the Norwegian Iron and Metal Workers' Union (NJMF) in a resolution made at the annual meeting in 1970 [Nygaard and Bergo, 74; Nygaard, 79]. The NJMF project started in the beginning of January 1971, and ended before summer 1973. The objective was to apply a workers' perspective on development and introduction of new technology in order to produce an action plan that would represent and strengthen the workers' position with respect to introduction and use of computer technology.
The NJMF project emphasised that knowledge gained locally should be a basis for the trade unions to act on a central level. The results from the project included technology agreements (the first made at A/S Viking Askim in 1973), textbooks, and vocational training programmes on technology.
The Swedish DEMOS project (DEMOkratiske Styringssystemer) from 1975 to 1979 did research on behalf of the responsible and skilled worker [DEMOS, 79; Ehn and Sandberg, 79]. The basic assumptions were that the use of computer technology contributes to rationalising work and deskilling workers, and that there is a fundamental conflict between workers and employers that cannot be resolved. The responsible worker has the right and duty to participate in decisions concerning both what is produced and how it is produced. Power is not equally distributed between workers and management, however, and a model for negotiations between management and unions on the introduction of computers was proposed. The negotiation model more or less institutionalises the conflict between employers and workers.
The objectives of the Danish DUE project (Demokrati, Udvikling og Edb) from 1977 to 1980 were to build up resources within unions to increase the unions' influence on the use of computer systems. The project also aimed at contributing to a professional curriculum and research programme in systems development [DUE, 78; 79; Kyng and Mathiassen, 79].
The first trade union projects, NJMF, DEMOS and DUE, have some characteristics in common. They were based on the contradiction between capital and labour claiming that there is an antagonistic relationship between the two. They aimed at strengthening the labour side of the contradiction between workers, representing the labour, and management, representing the capital in order to make the struggle more even. They were striving for a democratic research and development process claiming that researchers have the duty to support those with less power and resources. They also claimed that, when not reflecting on their role, researchers often support those in power [Sandberg, 75]. The projects departed from strong trade unions, and they were mainly concerned with the organised work force and mainly with production. The researchers believed that working life democracy can be reached through trade unions as institutions representing a workers' collective.

3. Design for the skilled worker

The experience from the trade union projects showed that strong unions may increase the workers influence on technology, but that this is not sufficient. It appeared to be necessary to create alternative technologies as well, to fight vendors' monopoly. The focus shifted to the means of production and the form and content of the working conditions. The next "generation" of projects thus concentrated on technological alternatives.

End Quotation

Sociotechnical Systems Design

Seeking contributors

Regional/Urban Design Assistance Teams

A R/UDAT (pronounced ROO-dat) is a grassroots approach to community development issues. The program combines local resources with the expertise of a multidisciplinary team of recognized professionals to identify ways to encourage desirable change in a community. The team conducts an intensive four-day workshop on site and then returns within the year to advise on implementation strategies. The process is fast-paced, exciting, energizing--and it works. This approach--which can address social, economic, political, and physical issues--offers communities a tool that mobilizes local support and fosters new levels of cooperation. The R/UDAT program is offered to communities as a public service of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).
Since 1967, R/UDATs have been conducted in over 125 communities nationwide and have addressed a wide variety of community problems, including urban growth and land-use, inner-city neighborhoods, rust belt issues, downtowns, environmental issues, waterfront development, and commercial revitalization. More than 500 professionals representing over 30 disciplines have donated more than 3.5 million dollars in services as members of R/UDAT teams.

From the American Institute of Architects guide "R/UDAT Planning Your Community's Future." For more information, contact the AIA R/UDAT program at (202) 626-7532.

Participatory Action Research

See the Participatory Action Research Network:

JAD - Joint Application Development

For an article comparing JAD and PD, see Adrian Damian, Danfeng Hong, Holly Li, Dong Pan. "Joint Application Development and Participatory Design." Department of Computer Science, University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2N 1N4 (adi, hongd, liq, pand)


As computer systems become more complex, business emphasize more on quality, productivity, traditional waterflow lifecycle methodologies can not satisfy these trends. Joint Application Development (JAD) and Participatory Design (PD) methods were proposed in order to address the problem. These two methods both emphasize greater user involvement and user participation in the development of systems. JAD was originally adopted in North America, while PD in Scandinavia. There are many similarities between JAD and PD. However, JAD and PD have different goals, JAD emphasizes on the functional requirements of the system, PD emphasizes more on social aspects of the system.

Participatory Ergonomics

Seeking contributors

Last updated:  June 12, 1998ddl
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